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Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 05:54 GMT
Richard Desmond: Express route to respectability
Richard Desmond: Express Newspapers' new owner
By Chris Jones of the BBC's news profiles unit

The red Crusader who bestrides the masthead of the Daily Express once symbolised the pride of the newspaper in the Empire.

Now the publication that was founded 100 years ago by Arthur Pearson, the son of a rector, is part of a new Empire, whose members include the magazines Big Ones and Asian Babes.

And while Pearson and Lord Beaverbrook might be turning in their graves, the 125m sale of Express Newspapers to Richard Desmond and his Northern and Shell Group must have had several members of the editorial staff wondering whether they will play a part in the next chapter of the Express story.

"We're going to break new stories and make people sit up and notice us", declares Desmond, a 48-year-old multi-millionaire. "My mum and dad read the Express... the papers mean a lot to me and I'm passionate about their future".

OK! cover
The flagship of the old empire

The Express Group, which also includes the Sunday Express and the Daily Star, has seen circulation figures plummet, but Richard Desmond is determined that the Express should prove tougher competition for the middle-market Daily Mail.

It is a formidable task, given the ailing sales of the Express, but then, when Northern and Shell launched OK! Magazine seven years ago, few would have expected it to now be virtually matching the sales of the market leader, Hello!.

Whatever the cost of celebrity spreads featuring Posh Spice and David Beckham, or Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, Richard Desmond, self-made man, tends to get what he wants.

He was, he says, "a fat and lonely child". He left school in north London at 14 with barely any academic qualifications and was applying for a job as a cloakroom attendant at Thomson Newspapers when he met the classified-advertisement director, and went to work for him instead.

He moved to another company and by 21, owned his own house and two record shops. It was his interest in music - he played drums in a jazz band - that led him to launch a magazine called International Musician in 1974, and soon, Desmond was producing a British edition of the American adult magazine, Penthouse.

OK! cover
The flagship of the new empire

With a media empire that also includes Television X and the Fantasy Channel , Richard Desmond now has an estimated personal fortune of 150m and lives in a grand house in Hampstead, north London, with his wife of 18 years and their 11-year-old son.

The trappings also include a butler and a powder-blue Bentley with personalised number-plate.

Along the way, Richard Desmond also gathered a reputation for a volcanic temper, the most infamous illustration being when he ordered a female executive, who was late for a board meeting, to stand in a cupboard. She refused and resigned.

What Desmond did not acquire was respectability, the missing credential many believe he is seeking through the Express takeover.

A sort of honest Robert Maxwell

Richard Barber, former OK! editor on Richard Desmond

Desmond's 5m of donations to charity, notably the Federation of Boys' Clubs, led to lunch at Buckingham Palace and eight years ago, the Duke of Edinburgh officially opened the white Docklands tower which is the headquarters of Northern and Shell.

"I suspect he would love a knighthood", says the publicist Max Clifford, who has had frequent dealings with Desmond on OK! Magazine.

A former editor of OK!, Richard Barber, says Desmond , whose friends include Jeremy Beadle and the businessman Gerald Ronson, is "a cartoon figure in many ways. Totally larger than life - a sort of honest Robert Maxwell." His arrival on the bridge of Express Newspapers raises questions about the political direction of the Express.

Richard Desmond
Richard Desmond faces his toughest challenge

On takeover day, Desmond described himself as a socialist, but he is also said to be on friendly terms with William Hague. But Richard Barber says Desmond regards politicians as "tossers" and he reputedly has little respect for most journalists either.

The biggest questions, though, are being asked in the City pages. Richard Desmond's empire has had to borrow heavily from Commerzbank to make the Express purchase. Whether he is prepared to inject the possibly huge sums needed to enable the Crusader to brandish his sword once more is yet to be seen.

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